With a sensational Breeders’ Cup World Championships fading in the rearview mirror and the conclusion of successful meets at Churchill Downs and Del Mar over Thanksgiving weekend, the big-ticket horse racing events of 2017 are all but finished, with only three more Kentucky Derby preps scheduled in December at Aqueduct, Los Alamitos, and Remington Park.
But truthfully, the 2018 calendar for top-class horse racing starts on Dec. 2 at Gulfstream Park, as the Hallandale Beach, Fla., track kicks off its Championship Meet with the Claiming Crown Saturday card.
Gulfstream’s 89-day meet runs the gamut in terms of fan appeal, offering (usually) great weather during Florida’s mild winter, a facility that has been transformed in recent years with the construction of an adjacent shopping mall, casino, and restaurant/bar complex, and unquestionably the best racing on the East Coast for the next five months as the top trainers from New York and Kentucky bring their best horses to south Florida.
Here are five weekends to bookmark on your calendar for Gulfstream’s Championship Meet, along with some recommendations for fans visiting the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area:
1. Clasico del Caribe:
Gulfstream makes history this year by becoming the first U.S. track to host the Clasico Internacional del Caribe on Dec. 9. The event features five stakes races bringing together the best racehorses from the Confederation of Caribbean Racetracks, highlighted by the $300,000 Caribbean Derby (Clasico del Caribe) for 3-year-olds. Gulfstream’s hosting is a major coup in fostering outreach into Latin American racing, as the Clasico Internacional del Caribe is annually a highly popular event for fans from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and other countries in the Confederation.
Furthermore, the Clasico del Caribe itself has been won by many Latin American jockeys who have also forged successful careers in the U.S., including Joel Rosario, Jose Lezcano, and Emisael Jaramillo, who is currently based at Gulfstream year-round.
2. Pegasus World Cup Invitational:
Last January, Gulfstream unveiled the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational, the brainchild of track owner Frank Stronach, which set a new bar as the world’s richest race. The 1 1/8-mile race could not have had a better start, as it drew 2016 Horse of the Year California Chrome and his conqueror in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Arrogate’s dominant win in the Pegasus World Cup set the tone for a 2017 season that would see him reach even greater heights in Dubai before being usurped later in the year by Gun Runner as America’s best racehorse.
As of Nov. 28, Gun Runner is scheduled to contest the second Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 27 before retiring to stud in Kentucky. If all goes well in health and training, he will enter the Gulfstream starting gate as 2017 Horse of the Year, since the 47th annual Eclipse Awards will be held two days prior on Jan. 25 at Gulfstream Park’s Sport of Kings Theater. The race’s format requires owners of each contender to pony up seven figures to secure a spot in the 12-slot starting gate, and this year’s Pegasus purse has been boosted to a gargantuan $16 million with additional funds from the Stronach Group to help improve owners’ potential return on their investment. The inaugural Pegasus was a success on many fronts as Gulfstream showed off its plethora of entertainment options to complement the elite racing, and expect track officials to aim even higher in 2018.
3. Holy Bull:
Gulfstream holds three prep races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, and they are usually among the most important, year-in, year-out. The first is the Holy Bull Stakes, set for Feb. 3 in 2018. The Grade 2, $350,000 race at 1 1/16 miles is named after the legendary Hall of Famer who had two of his career-best races at Gulfstream in 1994. This century, it’s been won by such notables as Barbaro, Dialed In, and Irish War Cry last year.
The Holy Bull offers qualifying points for the 2018 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve to its top four finishers on a 10-4-2-1 scale. Looking at the crystal ball, it’s possible the Holy Bull could be a target for recent Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic as he gears up for a Derby try.
4. Fountain of Youth:
The Grade 2, $400,000 Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes is the next step in south Florida’s Kentucky Derby prep series and offers qualifying points to the top four on a 50-20-10-5 scale. It’s set for March 3 at 1 1/16 miles and usually sends its winner to the Florida Derby.
The race has been won by such legends and Kentucky Derby winners as Spectacular Bid and Thunder Gulch. Orb pulled off the Fountain of Youth-Florida Derby-Kentucky Derby triple in 2013.
5. Florida Derby:
This is Gulfstream’s marquee race, even with the addition of the Pegasus, and it closes out the Championship Meet on its final Saturday, March 31. The Xpressbet.com Florida Derby is a Grade 1, $1 million race at 1 1/8 miles and you will usually see the best Kentucky Derby contenders from East Coast trainers such as Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Chad Brown, and Mark Casse entered as they seek out precious qualifying points that are distributed on a 100-40-20-10 scale.
Fans flock to Gulfstream for Florida Derby day, and there are six other stakes races scheduled on the card as well. Six horses that have won the Florida Derby this century have gone on to wear the roses at Churchill: Monarchos, Barbaro, Big Brown, Orb, Nyquist, and Always Dreaming. The last two have come in the past couple of years, setting up 2018 as a potential Florida Derby three-peat as horse racing’s most important Kentucky Derby prep.
Gulfstream Park enhances its fan experience with a Racing Ambassador Program for newbies and such events as the family-friendly Breakfast at Gulfstream every Saturday morning through the Championship Meet and the group Day at the Races package.
But there’s much more to explore after the final tickets are cashed. As noted above, Gulfstream’s facility includes a variety of restaurants and bars, music venues, stores, plus a casino with slots and a poker room. And the greater Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area is booming with an endless array of eclectic dining, drinking, and entertainment options, dispersed throughout the region, from the famous South Beach to Coconut Grove and including a downtown that's on the uptick with new hotels and shopping districts. For the gastronomically inclined (meaning everyone), ABR’s Jose Contreras has five restaurants to check out when heading down to south Florida for Gulfstream’s Championship Meet.